Disclaimer: I do not own Harry Potter and I do not get paid for writing this story. Please don't sue me.
Warning: Odd Birds
AN: Your reaction to my closing note was...while unsurprising, still slightly disappointing, as well as illuminating. A part of me had secretly hoped you'd come to know me better than to get offended at my (and Harry's) sweeping generalisations - which tend to be oversimplified for the sake of compactness, and cannot possibly capture the complexity of this world (or my view on it) accurately. Guess I chose too touchy a subject to touch with my pacifism-stained mitts - oops, my most deepest apologies. It's gone now, folks. And just to justify the unjustifiable, *imagine whatever does the trick for you, here*. There. Still, you have taught me a valuable lesson, believe it or not. How to wheedle reviews and PMs out of you? I am now one strategy richer :P
The unmistakable sound of laughter reached Dobby's ears as he prodded at the sizzling pieces of bacon in the frying pan with an overly large wooden spatula he had to hold with both hands to manipulate properly. Sail-like ears perked, he froze in mid-prod, and then shook his head, as if chasing away the auditory hallucination. It came back, though, in yet another bout of the natural, surprisingly sincere expression of amusement. The voice - Dobby had never thought that voice capable of sounding so...human.
He flopped down on the kitchen counter, let his legs dangle over the edge, spatula forgotten in the pan, and dreamy-eyed, started swinging his feet back and forth in a carefree motion. Wedging his joint hands between his bony knees, he sighed worshipfully:
Growing stronger by the hour, sunshine bored relentlessly into the towers, roofs, and stone walls of the ancient castle. There wasn't even the slightest trace of wind in the stiff air, in the fresh grass, in the tree branches of the dense forest radiating cold, nor on the steady surface of the nearby lake. The calm was all-consuming, signalling the beginning of what was going to be the hottest day Scotland had seen in weeks.
Two black dots were making their way across the castle grounds, quite unaware of the sharp beady eyes observing them from above.
"Having an articulate teenage moment?"
"Careful, Severus. You wouldn't want to hurt my shaky teenage ego now of all times, would you?"
"There's nothing shaky about that big head of yours."
"Ouch! You would be surprised how much I had to doubt myself before I became as awesome as I am."
"In that case, I have three letters for you."
There was laughter.
Fawkes beat his wings against the urge to swoop down and bask in the pure magic the smaller of the black dots was giving off. They would meet soon enough, and in a life as long as he'd had, there were few things that could justify impatience. A decade wasn't much by his standards, yet Fawkes felt as if he had been waiting for this unsuspecting fledgling for ages.
"...thirty six books in a week?"
"Not here Severus. As cool as it is, this place seems like it will make the bogeys in my nose report to Dumbledore..."
The delicious magic disappeared.
Or maybe not so unsuspecting.
"How gallant of you."
"Well, I would hate for you to be distracted by your own nasal mucus while dealing with the greatest wizard of our time. You do have a plan, I presume?"
"Not a plan per say..."
"Of all the moronic, Gryf-"
"It's more of a strategy."
At this angle, the heavy weight of the sun rays was beating straight down on his shiny scarlet tail feathers and Fawkes felt they were seconds away from catching fire. Carefully, he let himself glide to the level of the open window to the Headmaster's office. It was getting dangerously hot out here - and who would want to spend their first meeting with the Boy-Who-Lived buried under a pile of ashes?
"...if Tom's done his homework."
A familiar trill made Albus look up from his tea and answer jovially:
"Good morning, Fawkes," he watched with a fond smile as the bird landed expertly on his golden perch.
When one lives for over a hundred years, they come to appreciate constancy - which tends to get harder and harder to find in the ever-changing world. To Albus, Fawkes was the epitome of constancy. After all, if an immortal creature had stuck around for more than sixty years, there was little reason to doubt that it would be there tomorrow.
Fawkes was the best companion Albus could ever wish for. No Phoenix would ever trade their soul for power, make Albus choose between them and his duties, or make him fall in love. Fawkes was the safest living being Albus could possibly care for.
"Easy to love the eternally good," he murmured, still following the bird with his gaze.
The eternally good chirruped in response, dipping his tail into Albus' tea nonchalantly.
Never tickle a sleeping dragon, read the motto of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Common sense - Harry could easily relate to that. To what purpose exactly would anyone tickle a dormant threat? You want it dead? Kill it. You want its attention? Poke it. You want it pissed off? Poke it in the eye. Make up your mind; to hell with tickling. Yet, apart from the common one, there was also sense of humour...
Harry was never one for getting into things that could blow up in his face. He was all for setting countless controls and treading carefully - within the bounds of his current mood, of course. That being said, in the past few weeks, he had been forced to acknowledge a rather disconcerting fact - that not every situation permitted that kind of approach. You could plot and scheme till you were blue in the face and then Tom went: 'One Albus Dumbledore seems to be in trouble,' and you were free to start pulling miraculous solutions out of your ass preferably yesterday, regardless.
He couldn't complain too much, though. Harry still held all the cards, had the playing field laid out before him with all the pieces in place while he was sitting back comfortably; the invisible observer, the undetectable lightning yet to strike. While not underestimating himself, it sure wasn't a faulty conclusion to make that he'd had a much easier time of gaining the upper hand over Voldemort than he would have had, had the conditions been even. To keep this advantage in place for a little longer, Harry hadn't let Tom go the 'Mike way' about contacting him. That would have allowed the Dark Lord too much power over the circumstances of their meeting, too much wiggle room for his own plans. Therefore, he had chosen to take him by surprise, instead - while getting himself into a situation so precarious he didn't even want to think about all the possible disastrous outcomes.
Today was no different. But Harry knew better than to expect a repeat of his negotiations with Tom - which, by his standards, had been a smashing success. No, this would be much trickier. As far as his opponent knew, Harry was at his mercy - what with no connections, no money, and the legal status of a minor. Harry could blackmail and threaten - he certainly had no stellar reputation to worry about - except he also had no ground to stand on, in that regard. No amount of dirt of the highest quality thrown Dumbledore's way could ever trump what the nuisance of a man had on him. And if some less than honourable means had to be used to subdue the naughty child? Hogwarts was Vegas, what happened here stayed here, no doubt, the public getting waffle at best, complete bull if Trouble felt creative, and mum if he didn't.
Besides, it wasn't Harry's life on the line this time - it was his freedom. Needless to say, Harry much preferred it the other way around. It hadn't even crossed his mind when he had gone to see Tom but today presented a question of how much he was willing to bet on his wit. It was wholly his choice to meet with Trouble this early in the game and have the element of surprise on his side, rather than keeping a low profile and avoiding the potentially explosive confrontation for as long as he could.
It was frighteningly tempting to just hole up - now, that the possibility was actually there - and banter his life away with Tom. Yes, he would be a hypocrite if he claimed becoming a consulting Dark Lord was all he had ever striven for. Still, it would be so very easy to settle for less and just pretend he had, in fact, never wanted more. Never before had Harry had such an option on the table. Never before had he had to weigh the worth of contentment against ambition - as his level of contentment had never before reached the comparable section of the scales. And all in a day's work, there it was - too much fun to pass up and seemingly sustainable enough to consider long-term. Frightening!
So, saving his hypocrisy for some other time - now quite sure he would need it - he marched to a place that could get a whole world of nasty. Yet strangely, with Severus by his side, it didn't appear all that bad. That was one more novelty for Harry, right there - taking comfort in another's presence. It required a special person, of course - he didn't think it would work with anyone other than Severus, at this point. The man had been doing a splendid job of keeping him distracted so far, making conversation and all... Bless him - Harry had to give credit where it was due. Still, letting his worries be soothed by neither his imagination, nor the routine process of rationalising the hell out of everything, but by a living human being with a mind of their own, was surreal.
Harry was suddenly kicked out of his musings by an alarmingly familiar feeling. He started looking around the entrance hall they had somehow reached without him noticing.
"Is something the matter?" asked Severus carefully, concerned.
"Mr Sanderson. Can you see him? I have no idea how he managed to follow us here, though sure, the old man is nothing if not full of surprises..." he trailed off as he finally spotted the source of his confusion. "Now, this is creepy."
A scruffy, meagre man in a brown coat was sweeping and muttering under his breath morosely with his humped back turned to them, a tabby grey cat by his feet watching the end of the sweep move back and forth with bulging yellow eyes. With a few theories at ready, and still pondering which one to test first, Harry approached the oblivious man.
"Excuse me, are you mentally ill?" he enquired curiously, and immediately after the words were out of his mouth, he knew he picked the wrong one to start with. Oh well.
The man rounded on him, thin grey hair flying, sputtering in a way Harry suspected he had learnt from his pet.
"Get lost, brat, or I'll hang you by your ankles in the dungeons," the cattified humanoid spat and Harry had to restrain himself so that he wouldn't instinctively conjure a shield to keep away the spittle headed his way. Not wanting to take his eyes off the unpredictable crackpot, he walked backwards until his backside bumped into Severus. Strangely, he felt the Potions Master's body convulsing but Harry was too busy furiously wiping at his face to investigate what had gotten into his friend.
As he retreated further up the stairs, finally turning to face the way he was going, he heard a mumbled:
"...two months...filthy little beasts...not even two months...shackles..."
Well, this oddball was definitely barmy too. Still, he wasn't sure if that was the reason he felt so similar to the old man.
Having reached the first landing, Harry waited for Severus to catch up with him. When he did, the Potions Master was clutching his side and the corners of his mouth were twitching in a tell-tale sign that the man was having - discreet as it might be, though still undeniably - a laughing fit.
"Oh, just say it," sighed Harry, resigned.
"Smooth, Mr Potter," the man commented in the end, when he was sure he would be able to speak.
"Why, thank you Professor Social Butterfly," Harry returned drily.
"Well, that is undoubtedly the first time anyone has called me that. Bat of the Dungeons, yes, but Butterfly?"
"Social Moth, then. Better?"
It was a testimony to how well Severus had come to know him, that he never did comment on the underlying issue. Harry found it endearingly tactful.
Silence up the stairs. Adult and child, calm. One controlled exhalation, one bated breath. A tentative knock.
Not bothering to look up from his letter, Albus waved his wand and the door creaked open in invitation. Controlled exhalation stumbled in somewhat clumsily, bated breath followed with long, purposeful strides. Albus knew a sham when he heard one coming - and just like that, he felt half a century younger.
Pulling out his favourite pair of plush unicorn slippers from one of his desk drawers, he asked:
"Yes, please," the boy announced, wiggling his bare toes with innocent cheer.
Severus looked confused only for a moment and then, although it was not a likely gesture, Albus could still tell with certainty when the Potions Master stopped himself mid face-palm, ending up scratching his smooth-shaven chin. Catching the action as well, the boy's eyes twinkled with mirth but his face gave nothing away - a combination which spoke volumes. Familiarity, intent to conceal it, a well-controlled, almost instinctive pose easily and unwittingly broken by fond amusement.
If he felt awkward or nervous, the boy hid it masterfully as he accepted the offered shoes and put them on. Although he did fidget with his sleeve a little in the brief silence that ensued.
"You may leave us now, Severus. Mr Potter and I have much catching up to do," Albus said kindly, giving the boy a conspiratorial wink - which didn't fail to bring about an involuntary twitch of irritation.
The Potions Master nodded respectfully and without sparing the boy another glance, headed back to the door. The lad had other plans, apparently.
"If it isn't too much trouble, sir, I would prefer Professor Snape to stay," he said politely but firmly.
"And why is that?" One is much more likely to find something if they search for it - a touchy subject being no exception.
"His entertainment value is off the charts today; I would hate to miss out on anything," replied the boy with a perfectly straight face.
In Snape-speak, that clearly meant something along the lines of "at ease". Instantly, some of the ever-present tension left the man's face and posture. His wand swished through the air almost lazily as the Potions Master conjured a comfortable-looking chair by the window and proceeded to sit himself down with casual grace.
"Which end of the charts are we speaking of?" enquired the man matter-of-factly. Was Severus Snape really studying his nails for show?
"Get me a chair and I will tell you," bargained the boy, his tone balancing precariously on the the edge between propriety and flirtation.
Severus shot him a warning look but obliged. And soon, Harry Potter was lounging in a green leather armchair at a somewhat respectful distance from the Headmaster's desk yet in a distinctly disrespectful position.
"Very well," Albus allowed good-naturedly before the odd pair could resume their disturbing banter. He had to admit that Severus' newfound relaxed attitude had succeeded in throwing him off the track. "So what brings you here, my boy," he addressed the young Potter in an attempt to retake control of the conversation.
AN: Thanks for staying with me so far, hope you enjoyed even though this chapter's rather short. Review, if/when you feel like it; more coming if/when I feel like it - I will play by your rules, promise :)